Animal Attraction

Steven Erickson on Jean Painlevé

Left: Jean Painlevé, The Sea Horse, 1934, still from a black-and-white film, 15 minutes. Right: Jean Painlevé, The Love Life of the Octopus, 1965, still from a color film, 13 minutes.

THE WORK OF FRENCH SCIENTIST-DIRECTOR Jean Painlevé defies pigeonholing, which may explain why he’s relatively obscure in the United States. Are his shorts documentaries, educational films, or avant-garde experiments? Most of the time they’re a blend. Criterion’s three-DVD set brings together twenty-three of his shorts—he made more than two hundred—along with The Sounds of Science (a cycle of eight films set to a 2001 score by Yo La Tengo) and a lengthy documentary on Painlevé.

Scott MacDonald’s otherwise comprehensive liner notes remain mum on Painlevé’s sexuality, but it’s worth noting his films’ insistence on denaturalizing conventional ideas of gender and sexual orientation. The Sea Horse (1934) shows a male seahorse giving birth, while other shorts depict hermaphroditic animals and asexual methods of reproduction; although subtly and gently expressed, there’s a queer sensibility at work. The view put forth in his movies is relatively jovial; even The Vampire (1945), made under German occupation and widely interpreted as an anti-Nazi allegory, takes a sardonic glee in the snacking of a vampire bat on a guinea pig.

Painlevé's tendency to make parallels between his animal subjects and human behavior may be out of fashion, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Sea Ballerinas (1956) and Acera, or the Witches’ Dance (1972) create dances from extreme close-ups of swimming animals; particularly in the latter, it’s hard to believe their movements aren’t choreographed. The director divided his work into “popular” and “research” films; the former used jazzy scores, while the latter were more austere and aimed at an audience of scientists. Nevertheless, Painlevé’s use of music often adds to his films’ drama without dumbing it down. From the 1920s through the early ’80s, the director made a wide range of work, including films as abstract as Liquid Crystals (1978). Science Is Fiction brings a substantial survey to American audiences.

Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé is available through Criterion beginning April 21. For more details, click here.